Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters offers help in Pike County massacre trials

Says he expects changes of venue for murder trials
Posted at 4:10 PM, Nov 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-20 19:41:57-05

CINCINNATI -- The Rhoden family killings led to the most complex criminal investigations in Ohio history.

In Cincinnati, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said he believes changes in venue are coming, and he offered help from his office if the state needs it.

George "Billy" Wagner III, Angela Wagner, Edward "Jake" Wagner and George Wagner IV are accused of killing eight members of the Rhoden family in 2016. Two others, Fredericka Wagner and Rita Newcomb, are accused of helping them cover it up. 

Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said it could take several years for the capital murder cases to weave through the justice system.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead of us," he said. "I cannot emphasize that enough."

Junk said he intends to try all four cases in Pike County.

In Hamilton County, Deters has been watching with some skepticism.

"I can't image a scenario where they will be able to try that out in Pike County," Deters said. "These cases, it's just overwhelming."

Pike County officials have said they're concerned about the high costs of the trials.

In 1993, Deters' office was called on to help prosecute the Lucasville prison riot cases in Scioto County, another area with limited resources because of its size.

"Our death penalty cases, we call in a couple hundred jurors," Deters said. "They're not going to be able to do that. There's no way."

On top of the complicated cases, prosecutors will have to deal with seating four separate juries in a county with just 28,000 residents. That's why Deters said he believes changes in venue are coming.

There's another challenge: Governor-elect Mike DeWine will hand over the Attorney General's Office to current Auditor Dave Yost early next year. Yost said DeWine has already designated him a "special attorney general" in the meantime.

"I've already gotten a high-level briefing and Wednesday I'm meeting with trial team and going through the file with them," Yost said.

Until they transition to their new offices in January, Yost said DeWine is still calling the shots on the case. He said he's confident there are adequate jury pools, but also said it's possible venues could change and he could need help from Deters to support Junk going forward.

"The career prosecutors who are working on this case have been on it since the beginning," he said. "They know the case backward and forward. It will be a little bit of a life to get discovery ready because there's a lot, but we'll make sure the resources are there and we'll be ready to try the case."

A spokesman for DeWine's office said he was grateful for Deters' offer of assistance. 

A reporter reached out to attorneys for the Wagner family. Two of them, Bob Krapenc and Mark Collins, said they may ask for change of venues, but they first want the judicial process to start in Pike County to see if they can locate juries there. 

Collins said he's confident they can find one jury in Pike County, but he has questions about finding three or four.